In a recent North Carolina wrongful death case, a decedent’s estate appealed from a summary judgment in favor of a building company. The decedent was an employee of a steel company that had subcontracted with a building company to install structural steel at a construction project.
The steel company’s employees left a 700-pound beam of tube steel on steel pads or saddles that were welded onto vertical steel columns. The employees attached the beam to a center mounting tab situated on the columns. However, the workers didn’t weld the ends of the beams to the saddles. The steel company’s employees loosened the center bolts, causing the beam to fall 12-15 feet. The beam crashed into machinery, bounced off the concrete, and hit the decedent in his head, neck, and upper back.
Ambulances arrived at the construction site, and the decedent told the emergency responders that the lower half of his body was numb. The emergency responders took him to the ER, where he was diagnosed with an acute, serious injury to his spine. He was paralyzed below the neck and suffered severe pain. In spite of several surgeries to remove the shattered bone from the decedent, he eventually died.
His estate sued the steel company, claiming negligence, wrongful death, and a Woodson claim that it argued was legally caused by the steel company’s negligence. The estate then amended the complaint to add the building company as a defendant. It claimed the builder was directly or vicariously liable for the injuries. It also alleged the builder was independently negligent in not monitoring the building site to make sure it was safe at all times. It also claimed that because of the builder’s negligence, the decedent had suffered mentally and physically. It asserted its complaint was brought under N.C.G.S. § 28A-18-1.
The builder made a motion to dismiss the complaint. The claimant voluntarily dismissed the lawsuit against the builder without prejudice in 2014. The steel company moved for dismissal, and this was granted on the basis that the claim was covered by the North Carolina Workers’ Compensation Act. The decedent was the employee of the steel company, so his only recourse against the steel company was a workers’ compensation claim.
The estate sued the building company again and asserted a survival lawsuit under N.C. Gen. Stat. § 28A-18-1 for compensatory damages for pain, suffering, and medical expenses, as well as punitive damages.
The building company denied its actions were the legal cause of the injuries to the decedent. It filed several motions, including a motion for summary judgment. It argued in its motion that it hadn’t breached a duty to the decedent or his family, since none of its employees injured the decedent, the work wasn’t inherently dangerous, and no evidence supported the claim of negligent hiring.
The plaintiff argued the defendant changed its defense at the last minute and had admitted its actions caused the decedent’s injuries. The appellate court explained the record showed a consistent defense. It also explained that the current wrongful death statute was found in N.C. Gen. Stat. § 28A-18.2 and that the statute of limitations was two years.
The estate argued it had a valid survival action against the defendant under N.C. Gen. Stat. § 28A-18-1, which has a three-year statute of limitations. The appellate court found that reading the complaint as a whole, the only ground asserted was wrongful death, rather than a survivorship action. If a single act of negligence causes a decedent’s fatal injuries, the plaintiff’s remedy is a wrongful death claim for the decedent’s pain and suffering and medical bills. All of the claims asserted by the plaintiff in this case for compensatory damages were damages falling within the wrongful death statute, and a complaint needed to be filed within two years. In this case, the plaintiff hadn’t named the builder until 11 months after the wrongful death statute of limitations expired. The lower court’s ruling was affirmed.
If you suffered injuries due to the wrongful conduct or negligence of another party, the experienced North Carolina wrongful death attorneys at Maurer Law may be able to help you recover compensation. Contact us at 919-229-8359 or via our online form.
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